Lost and found.
The unforeseen brilliance of the news Jesus came proclaiming.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
One prevailing difficulties when it comes to studying the Word of God is what to do with all those parables the Lord told throughout his ministry. These passages represent some of the most celebrated scriptures in the Christian faith — and the Gospels are filled with them. The parables have often been understood as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” This definition doesn’t so much as define Jesus’s parables as it offers the scaffolding upon which we attempt to make sense of these shrewd stories as told by our Savior. In reality, though, the familiar way in which we discern Jesus’s motivation behind the parables and meaning within the parables is often less than compelling. Time and again, our interpretational framework veers into the realm of allegory and myth, which fashions Jesus’s parables as though they are merely divine Aesop’s Fables. Nineteenth century Anglican archbishop Richard C. Trench makes this same assertion, stating, “There are some who have identified the parable with the Æsopic fable, or drawn a slight and hardly perceptible line of distinction between the two” (2). The allegorical method for understanding the parables seeks to draw distinct connections between the players and circumstances of the parables and the truths which Jesus came to reveal and make known.
This mechanism of biblical understanding is, perhaps, best expressed by 18th century Scottish divine Thomas Guthrie, who maintains, “The Parable may assume a variety of forms, but the rule of interpretation is the same in all cases. The nearer we can make everything in the parable apply, and stand out as the medium of an important truth, so much the better” (7–8). This venture, then, strives to decipher the Lord’s more perplexing illustrations via a “this-means-that” schema. The peoples and objects and events of the parables are associated with richer and deeper and higher significance. However, this method falls short when you remember that in several of the parables the subjects are shown operating in less than ethical or even moral ways. For example, consider Jesus’s parable of the vineyard workers (Matt. 20:1–16). On five separate occasions, the vineyard owner ventures, of his own accord, into the marketplace to hire workers to toil on his property for an agreed upon wage. Each group of workers ends up laboring for proportionally less hours as the day wears on. However, when the work day finally comes to a close and the workers line up to receive their pay, much to the chagrin of the early-bird-toilers, every worker is given the same wage. Jesus’s point is not to uphold the business sense and payroll practices of this vineyard owner. Rather, it’s to emphasize the outrageous freeness of his Father’s generosity and favor.
Consequently, straining to allegorize the parables will always leave a residue of uninterpreted or misinterpreted detail. They are, indeed, pregnant with meaning — but this is not because the good Lord relayed them in a neat and tidy, 1:1 ratio of symbol to truth. To be sure, Jesus does, on occasion, offer unmistakable interpretations of his parables. He does so with the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:18–23) and the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:36–43). But that isn’t always the case — those instances of explanation are the exception, not the rule. The bulk of Jesus’s parables are appended with the exhortation, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15; 13:9, 43; Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8; 14:35; Rev. 2:29). The Savior wasn’t always forthright with his intentions behind using and relaying certain parabolic narratives. This he did not because he relished in callously or coyly playing with the truth about his Father’s kingdom, but because he purposed to impress upon sinners the necessity of faith. Such is the sword which Jesus wields (Matt. 10:34–36). And so it is that the biblical specimens of parables differ from the familiar use of fables or myths or allegories. Richard Trench is, once again, helpful here:
The parable differs from the fable, moving as it does in a spiritual world, and never transgressing the actual order of things natural — from the mythus, there being in the latter an unconscious blending of the deeper meaning with the outward symbol, while the two remain separate and separable in the parable — from the proverb, inasmuch as it is more fully carried out, and not accidentally and occasionally, but necessarily figurative — from the allegory, comparing as it does one thing with another, but, at the same time, preserving them apart as an inner and an outer, and not transferring, as does the allegory, the properties and qualities and relations of one to the other. (10)
A better method, then, for understanding the parables is, I’d propose, to consider them not in terms of allegory but in terms of revelation. Through the parables, God’s only begotten Son discloses, uncovers the truth about God himself and the purposes he’s purposed from “before the foundation of the world” to reveal his Trinitarian glory (Eph. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:20; Rev. 13:8). Namely, through his unconditional redemption, reconciliation, and re-creation of the cosmos (Col. 1:20). The plainness of the parables which Jesus proclaimed colors this otherworldly mission of the Lord’s Christ in language that was familiar, known, and downright ordinary. Through them, we’re given a striking glimpse of the God who created the universe with a word and who, by the same omnipotent Word, absolves damned sinners. The expansive errand of grace is, therefore, brought down-to-earth, in embraceable terms. That embrace, though, was like hugging a cactus.
You see, inherent in the parables are also the subversive notes of the “kingdom of heaven.” The promise of the messianic kingdom was a gravely misunderstood reality in Jesus’s day, and perhaps that is still the case in some corners of Christendom. The thought of the Ancient of Days coming and doing and saying what Jesus so often did and said was an abrupt about-face on the generally accepted interpretation of the Messiah’s promised undertaking. “In turning everything right side up,” as Jared C. Wilson says, “Jesus is putting a great many things upside down” (38). Accordingly, the parables serve to function as heavenly spoonfuls of salt which are poured into the wounded assumptions of the religionists of Jesus’s day (Trench, 4). “You think God’s kingdom is like this?” he asks. “Well, let me tell you what it’s really like.” “The parables,” writes Chad Bird, “upend all our notions of a God who plays by our rules” (xi). Each one is, at heart, another instance of that pattern made famous through Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where he announces, “You’ve heard it said, but I say unto you” (Matt. 5:21ff). And there is, perhaps, no better instance of this than the twin parables of the hidden treasure and the discovered pearl:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Matt. 13:44–46)
These parables are not only two of the briefest on record, they’re also two of the most confounding. Case in point, after consulting several studies of the parables and/or commentaries on Matthew’s Gospel, it was evident that Jesus’s words were enduringly befuddling. There are a wide range of solutions and explanations for these brusque illustrations, with the most common variety being the ones where you and I are at the center of them. We are “the man” who stumbles upon the treasure of the gospel of God in “the field” of God’s Word — and because this treasure is so valuable, we hide it in order to preserve it. Likewise, we are “the merchant” on the hunt for “fine pearls” who, after finding the priceless pearl of the gospel, sells everything to get it. In both scenarios, we become the seeker and the finder, with the inestimable value of God’s gospel dangling as the proverbial carrot that ought to motivate us to part with anything to sufficiently treasure the gospel. Because the gospel’s worth it.
Such is the overriding takeaway that’s often gleaned from this text. Jesus’s point was obviously an emphasis on the worthiness of the gospel, with the hinge of the parable turning on our response to the gospel. That is to say, we better do all we can, sell all we have, to get that gospel for ourselves, whatever it might cost us, because there is no other treasure like. It’s one-of-a-kind. Priceless. There’s no pearl that compares to it. “How many,” notes John Broadus, “even when avowedly searching for religious truth and comfort, will buy, even at great cost, some imitation-pearl, that is really worthless” (306). This, though, turns the Savior’s words into some sort of ultimatum that sounds like, “Be done piddling around those counterfeit pearls, or else.” The point that’s driven home is effort that’s worth finding the treasure of the gospel. “The Jews,” Broadus continues, “thought that the Messianic blessings would come as a mere gift of God, without sacrifice or seeking; and Jesus corrects their error” (306). I guess, then, we all are called to be “treasure hunters for Jesus,” because who can put a price-tag on what the gospel offers? “Jesus teaches us,” Thomas Guthrie comments, “that the soul finds in Himself all it feels the want of, and has been seeking in other ways” (197). Similarly, Rev. Alexander Maclaren says that “the wealth of the human soul is to have God for its very own” (7:1.253). Richard Trench, though, sums up this familiar interpretational lingo concisely when he says, “Obtain the truth at any price, and let no price tempt you to part with it” (133).
That is a sampling of how these parables are often explained. And, no doubt, there’s scintilla of merit in there. The gospel is priceless. Jesus is worth it. Other truths don’t hold a candle to the truth that Jesus came to reveal, and all that. But my one question when it comes to interpreting these parables in that fashion is: When have we ever been the center of the story that God purposes tell? When have we ever been the central figure? When are we cast as the hero? You see, I’m always wary of biblical interpretations which put us at the middle of them. Don’t get me wrong, we like being the center, we want to be the center — we relish and revel in that attention. We crave after it, really. But God’s redemptive, reconciliatory purposes don’t ultimately have you and I at their center. That spot is reserved for God, and God alone. He is their center, their point, not us. The story that God the Father tells in his Word — and that his Son reveals in the parables — is the story of his glory being revealed in brilliant and bloody fashion. In “reconciling the world unto himself,” the Lord intended to show on a cosmic stage how “he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth” (2 Cor. 5:19; Col. 1:20; Rom. 3:26).
Accordingly, these complementary parables tells us about the heaven-sent Redeemer, who found a treasure trove of sinners whom he favors. Even though we were lost and buried in a field of ruin and rebellion, God’s Son notices us, treasures us, enough that he would visit us (Ps. 8:4). Enough that he would sell all he had to purchase us for himself. “The seeker is Christ,” H. A. Ironside affirms, “who came from the throne of glory to this poor world, seeking for jewels to adorn His crown forever” (172). He finds his treasure in a scrap-heap of sin and sludge, and, unthinkably, buys the whole acreage. “At Calvary,” Ironside continues, “He sold all that He had and bought the field, which is the world . . . At the cross . . . He literally impoverished Himself to purchase the Church as His own choice pearl” (172–73). Richard Trench closes his discussion of these parables with this splendid afterthought: “Christ the merchant, who to secure that kingdom to us and make it ours, though He was so rich, gladly made Himself poor, buying that pearl and that treasure — not indeed for Himself, but for us” (134–35). Such is the unforeseen brilliance of the news which Jesus came proclaiming. Namely, that the untold mercy of God would be manifest in the mystery of the kingdom.
The hidden treasure and the priceless pearl are, as I see it, the mystery of the “kingdom of heaven” that has been at work all along, throughout all times, ages, and movements of history. On the surface, this mystery has been so hidden, so concealed, that it often appears nonexistent. Indeed, you could examine the annals of history from a certain point of view and come to the conclusion that God’s promise was not entirely true. His promise of blessing to his people — the people of Israel whom he treasures (Exod. 19:5; Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 26:18; Ps. 135:4; Mal. 3:17; Titus 2:14) — often appears insincere. They’re oppressed and persecuted and enslaved and judged over and over and over. The promise of the kingdom seems more than doubtful, on more than one occasion. And yet, what do we know? What do we believe? In short, that despite all those moments of trepidation and turmoil and turbulence that the mysterious promise of the “kingdom of heaven” was safe and sound because of Christ.
Because from “before the foundation of the world,” God in Christ was “reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). The mystery of the kingdom (Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 6:19; Col. 2:2; 1 Tim. 3:9, 16), you might say, was “hidden in the field” which God had redeemed (“bought”) for himself. And at just the right right time — “when the fulness of the time was come” (Gal. 4:4) — the Lord’s Christ would unearth the mystery of this heavenly kingdom and present it for all the world to see. “The kingdom of God,” note Daniel Emery Price and Erick Sorensen, “isn’t a quest man is able to embark on. He cannot find it, build it, or enter it on his own. The kingdom of God is God himself on a rescue mission in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It’s the holy invasion of heaven to earth” (96). Which is to say, Jesus buys the field. He’s the One who purchases and establishes with his own blood the kingdom of promise (Wilkin, 2). He remains, then, the penultimate Seeker and Finder. “From first to last,” writes Horatius Bonar, “God pursues the sinner as he flies from him; pursues him not in hatred, but in love; pursues him not to destroy, but to pardon and to save” (203). We are the treasure God in Christ does everything to purchase. And, as Price and Sorensen say, “We are not treasure because of what we naturally are. We are treasure because of whom we are treasured by” (100). The point is not the treasure. The point is the Person who finds the treasure. We once were lost, now we’re found, because God’s only begotten Son went all the way to find us. And that’s the best news I’ve ever heard.
Chad Bird, foreword to Scandalous Stories: A Sort of Commentary on Parables, by Daniel Emery Price and Erick Sorensen (Irvine, CA: 1517 Publishing, 2018).
Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Peace: A Book for the Anxious (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1864).
John A. Broadus, Commentary on Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1990).
Thomas Guthrie, The Parables: Read in the Light of Present Day (London: Alexander Strahan, 1867).
H. A. Ironside, Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Bros., 1948).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).
Richard C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (New York: Appleton & Co., 1874).
Robert N. Wilkin, “A Great Buy!” The Grace Evangelical Society News 6:9 (September 1991).
Jared C. Wilson, The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).